Other Questions

Question No. 47 replied to with Written Answers.

Passport Applications Administration

Martin Heydon

Question:

48. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will provide an update on the increased activity in passport applications; if delays are being experienced; if additional resources can be assigned to the Passport Office to deal with the increased volume of applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14215/18]

The Ceann Comhairle has allowed Deputy McLoughlin to take Deputy Heydon's question. I presume there is no difficulty with that.

The weather caused issues for the increased activity in passport applications that owes to Brexit and so on. There is considerable demand for passports. Will the Minister outline whether additional staff are being employed?

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to put some facts on the table, as this is an issue for many Deputies who have contacted my office.

Between 1 January and 22 March, the Passport Service received more than 222,000 applications, an increase of 7% on the same period last year, which itself saw an increase on the previous year. The service is currently processing more than 70,000 passport applications. These are going through the normal checking, processing and security stages. There is a significant security element involved.

The turnaround timeframe for a passport application will depend in the first instance on the channel through which the application is submitted. The target turnaround time for applications made via the online passport application service is ten working days plus postage time. Approximately half of online applications are currently being processed within five working days, which is well ahead of target. The award winning online service accommodates adult renewals and passport card applications and it is planned to extend this service to children and all other categories of renewals by the end of this year. Whether residing in Ireland or overseas, I urge applicants wishing to renew their passports to avail of the online passport application service where possible, as it allows us to make decisions more quickly.

The average turnaround time for renewal applications submitted through passport express, which is the postal service, is currently 14 working days, one day ahead of the target turnaround time of 15 working days. Other types of application submitted through passport express, such as first-time applications and applications to replace lost, stolen or damaged passports, take longer due to additional security checks.

In recent weeks, we have had higher than average turnaround times for some categories of application owing to high application volumes and disruption caused by adverse weather conditions and the subsequent closure of the Dublin and Cork passport offices for two days. However, the turnaround times have considerably reduced and in many cases are now shorter than the published target times.

My Department continues to monitor the level of passport demand closely to ensure that all resources are effectively deployed. Additional measures taken by the Passport Service this year include the recruitment of additional staff and the use of targeted overtime.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I am pleased to say that over 20 permanent staff have recently joined the Passport Service's existing 322 full-time equivalent staff. Furthermore, the Passport Service has received sanction this year for 220 temporary clerical officers to be appointed to the passport offices in Dublin and Cork. The majority of these officers are already in place. Targeted overtime for the Passport Service was also sanctioned to increase processing capacity.

In managing increasing application volumes, my Department's approach has not been merely to recruit or assign additional staff, but to continue to implement service improvements in order to provide an exceptional service and minimise the impact high application volumes have on turnaround times. The passport reform programme is delivering major upgrades to the passport service technology platforms and business processes as well as significant customer service improvements. The award winning online passport application service will continue to make a major contribution to the effective management of application volumes by allowing existing resources to be more effectively deployed within the Passport Service.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. There have been considerable demands for passports to be issued. I welcome the online service, which was introduced recently, but people have told me that the 14-day turnaround when applying via An Post leaves their schedules tight. I appeal to everyone. People are now preparing for their holidays, so the first thing they should do is ensure that their passports are in date. Every constituency office in the country is visited by numerous people who, having already booked their holidays, are now looking for passports because a child or someone else does not have one. It is important that the Passport Service and we as public representatives send out a message so that people avoid finding out at the last moment that they cannot travel on their holidays or for events.

On behalf of Deputy Heydon, I thank the Tánaiste for the answers he has provided.

I refer the Deputy to the additional information contained in my reply.

I am more than aware of the problems that we have faced with passports in recent weeks. Passport offices were closed for processing and the machines were turned off for two days because of extreme weather conditions. We could not bring staff in - it was not safe. When the service is processing in or around 70,000 passport applications at any given time, such a closure will have a major impact. However, we are getting back on top of it. We are again ahead of the target processing times even though there was a great deal of significant disruption in recent weeks. Many Deputies contacted my office about this matter on behalf of their constituents. I hope that we were able to resolve the emergency cases and that we will be able to return to an efficiently run system after the significant interruption, which was outside our control. We have made up for that by using extra staff and overtime to get the processing times back under the targets.

I acknowledge the work done by the Tánaiste, his staff and the officials. When I dealt with them about emergency passports in the past 12 months, they were accommodating and helpful in every way. The Tánaiste referred to 70,000 applications, which is a large number. With Brexit and the current level of demand for Irish passports, staff are doing a significant amount of work. I am sure that we would all like to thank them for what they have done, their understanding and their help. It is only right and proper that we acknowledge that.

In an effort to get the process back on track, there was no bank holiday Monday for the staff in the passport offices. They were in working, trying to get the turnaround times back to where we wanted them to be under the target threshold. There is a considerable commitment to making up for the shock to the system that came with the severe weather, which resulted in the passport offices having to close for two days.

We are seeing an unprecedented number of applications. There was a significant increase last year on the year before and it looks like there will be another significant increase this year. We are gearing up to deal with that. Last year, we introduced many reforms to use technology more efficiently. More and more people are using the online system, which we will expand this year to all passport applications for children as well as adults. We are responding to increased demand and shocks to the system. I encourage everyone who is listening, including parents and families, to please check their passports early in the year so that they can get renewals when they are required instead of approaching us at the last minute and interrupting the whole system, since we must stop the process to pull out a passport for someone on an emergency basis, which slows the system down for everyone else.

Northern Ireland

Michael Moynihan

Question:

49. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has discussed the possibility of appointing an independent chair to facilitate talks in Northern Ireland. [13947/18]

Stephen Donnelly

Question:

56. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the comments by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Karen Bradley, that bringing forward a joint view by the UK and Irish Governments for power sharing would not be helpful; if the role of both Irish and UK Government is to facilitate and not impose a solution for the establishment of an assembly and that the DUP and Sinn Féin must reach their own agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14213/18]

Seán Haughey

Question:

58. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if the basis of an agreement in Northern Ireland was nearly finalised when he visited on 12 February 2018; the areas in which the progress stumbled; the reason for the breakdown; and the efforts being made to allow all of the parties in Northern Ireland to allow the Assembly to be reconvened. [8700/18]

Appointing an independent chair could allow the talks and, consequently, the Assembly to get back up and running.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 49, 56 and 58 together.

That conversation has taken place at various times, including last summer when the all-party talks were in play and later when there was a focus on what were essentially two-party talks that both Governments were trying to facilitate. We have had conversations with the parties at different times about whether an independent chair would be helpful.

One gets different feedback from different parties. There was certainly a view from the two larger parties that they wanted to try to do this on their own, together. There was a view from some of the other parties that there was a need to bring in an independent chair and broaden this out to make sure that all the parties were involved in the discussions. I have an open mind on it. If it would help, of course we will do it, but Northern Ireland is in a different place now from where it was 20 years ago when there was a need for high profile involvement and intervention to try to encourage people to make this huge step, which was the Good Friday Agreement. Parties have worked together for many years since then, in devolved government and outside devolved government, and there is a sense that the parties know each other very well and that we should be able to try to find accommodation for each other without having to bring in an independent chair. That being said, we are looking at all options now and anything that will help progress conversations that can lead to an Executive being re-established is something to which we are very open.

I hear what the Tánaiste is saying about how matters have advanced during the past 20 years but the Assembly has not been sitting in the North of Ireland since January 2017 and there is no prospect of that happening, at least in the short term. In view of all the complicating factors, such as the attempts to get the Assembly up and running and have self-governance in the North of Ireland, and the challenges, of which the Tánaiste is well aware, with which he is dealing on a daily basis in terms of Brexit and how that will impact on the island of Ireland, and in particular on the North of Ireland, we may need to consider, given that it is almost 18 month since the Assembly sat, the need to move the process on to a another level. I hear what the Tánaiste is saying about the way matters have worked during the past 20 years, but we have reached a juncture where I believe an independent chair is required. How long more can matters drift without action being taken to try to bring the parties together in the interests of all of us on the island, and particularly those in the North of Ireland, as we go deeper into the Brexit negotiations to make sure an Assembly is up and running in the North?

I do not disagree with any of that. The question is what new structures would be helpful in terms of bringing this process forward and is an independent chair part of that. I do not think the two Governments are in any way precious about that. What we want is to try to respond in a way that helps the parties - by that I mean all parties, not only the big two - to come together to accommodate each other to form a fully inclusive Executive, and currently it is a big challenge to do that. Often before agreements were made there was a lot of pessimism. The job of the two Governments is to work together, to trust each other and to try to bring about a situation whereby the political environment changes. That is what we have to do in the coming weeks and months. There may well be a role for an independent chair as part of a new process but we need to determine how that process will work for us. Simply naming a new chair on its own certainly will not take this process forward.

The easiest thing to do would be to name a new chair. The two Governments trust each other and are involved in the negotiations, and the Brexit negotiations are taking place at another table. Decisions regarding the North of Ireland, the Border and all of that are crucial for the island of Ireland. In light of the discussions the Tánaiste is having with all the parties in the North, does he believe that an independent chair would move the process forward in attempt to get a resolution and secure self-governance? I understand the point the Tánaiste made that the easiest thing to do would be to name a chair, but does he believe there is a willingness among the parties to accept an independent chair at this juncture?

I think different parties have different views; that is the straight answer to the Deputy's question. I think some parties would need some persuasion that introducing an independent chair at this stage would be helpful because I am not sure that it is right now. What the Governments need to do, and what we will be doing, is discussing how the two Governments, working together, can help to create a context and, in time, put a structure in place that can allow for a political negotiation to result in a willingness to set up devolved government and an Assembly again. There is work to do in that area, and I have to say I am concerned about the polarisation in Northern Ireland right now. Some of that is linked to Brexit and some of it is linked to a frustration about a lack of progress in terms of devolved government. That impacts on the capacity of many community projects and so on that rely on political decision making for support and they are very uncertain about their future and future funding models and so on. There was a need for a budget to be passed in Westminster to try to provide financial certainty at least for the moment, and we support that. There is a need for political structures to be in place to ensure that political decisions can be made in Northern Ireland which cannot be made at the moment.